A few hours after Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a statewide safer-at-home order and after hearing constituent pleas to maintain public safety, the Lakeland City Commission today voted 6-1 to close all city parks, including walking trails like the one around Lake Hollingsworth, effective 12:01 a.m. Friday.
Also today, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Polk County rose to 91, up 18 from a day earlier, and the number of cases in Lakeland climbed to 21, with a nurse practitioner who works at Lakeland Regional Health added to the list.
Today’s City Commission action at an emergency teleconference meeting reverses a decision it made Monday to re-open some of the parks closed a week earlier as a way to prevent social distancing.
Early in the two-hour-plus meeting, commissioners and their staff picked over the specifics in Gov. DeSantis’ 30-day order, discussing which facilities could remain open and still comply.
But the tone shifted after commissioners took phoned-in public comments from 18 residents, most of whom strongly implored them to take decisive action to protect public health and encourage residents to exercise at home or in their neighborhoods rather than crowd public parks.
Commissioner Phillip Walker made a motion to close all public parks. He made the same motion on March 23, but it failed to get a second. This time it passed 6-1, with Commissioner Stephanie Madden dissenting.
Before voting, Madden praised one of the callers for his “young civic action, but he has one voice and he agrees with a lot of people on social media, but for his one there’s a thousand people who believe the way I’m going to vote … We wouldn’t have the problem at Lake Hollingsworth if other people didn’t want to be out out exercising their freedom, their right for essential activity to get fresh air and exercise.”
City Manager Tony Delgado said signs would be placed Friday morning in newly closed areas such as Lake Hollingsworth, Lake Morton, Lake Mirror, Lake Wire and Munn Park.
Other measures would be taken after that to restrict access to public areas. For example, city Parks and Recreation Bob Donahay said fencing would be placed across the Lake Hollingsworth sidewalk at “pinch points” to discourage its use.
Before placing any fencing, the city will takes into account the riparian rights of Lake Hollingsworth Drive residents to access their lakefront docks, Delgado said.
The closure also includes the Cleveland Heights Golf Course, tennis courts and boat ramps, all of which would have reopened today under the City Commission’s Monday vote.
Commissioner Scott Franklin pushed for issuing civil citations to people who continue to congregate in public places.
City Attorney Palmer Davis noted that violations of the city’s emergency order can be considered a second-degree misdemeanor.
Delgado said police will first try to use persuasion to convince groups to disperse. “If they don’t disperse, we’ll use the authority that you provided,” he said.
In addition, Delgado said parks and recreation staffers will probably be stationed in some of the busier parks to inform visitors that they’re closed.
Latest numbers, Lakeland Regional Health
The governor’s emergency order came on a day when the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Florida rose to 7,773 and deaths passed 100.
In Polk County, 37 of the 91 people with confirmed cases are in hospitals, and there’s been one death.
Lakeland Regional Health confirmed this afternoon that a nurse practitioner “tested presumptive positive for COVID-19” Tuesday night.
The name, gender, specialties or city of residence of the nurse practitioner were not disclosed.
“The provider is doing well, recovering at home in isolation, and thankful for the support received,” the hospital said in a news release.
Hospital officials said they have notified “a small number of patients” and staff members who may have been in contact with the nurse practitioner. CDC guidelines “were followed at all times.” the hospital said.
The text of Gov. DeSantis’ order accompanied by documents about essential businesses:
Video of today’s City Commission meeting on park closings: